Showdown: Systems Thinking vs Root Cause Analysis

I gave a presentation in Recife about Systems Thinking and had a great question about where does root cause analysis fit in versus systems thinking which describes emergent behaviour and that there may be no single cause to the system behaviour.

Image courtesy of tamboku under the Creative Commons licence

Firstly I like the quote from statistician George E.P. Box, “essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

What I like about the root cause analysis is how it teaches you to not react to symptoms. It encourages you to look at the relationship between observations and move deeper. All of this is subjective interpretation and, like systems thinking, depends on how a person draws the relationships. From this perspective, they are similar.

Many people describe the five whys as a technique and one that I draw upon more often. I prefer the fishbone method of root cause analysis because it helps encourage you to think that there may be more than one cause for an effect you see.

When you take the results of root cause analysis and try to see if there are any cyclic relationships, you might end up identifying more effective leverage points where breaking, accelerating or dampening a reinforcing loop with a small effort might have a significant impact on the system.

After studying complexity theory, an interesting approach at looking at these models is never thinking about them in a mode of conflict. Instead, you should be looking at where there is value and trying to apply them where you can realise that value. Never look at models as competing (OR-mode) thinking. View them as complementary (AND-mode thinking)

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